PREM: Penn Pals

Peer mentoring to enhance the pipeline

NCCU PREM Proposal awarded in 2015 and Penn Pal idea was implemented and expanded to our second PREM Cal State LA. 

Goals: Facilitate ‘pairing interactions’ between PREM students, especially those visiting PSU, and Penn State students for two-way peer mentoring and modeling, to make the experience something more than an REU.

Practice: Continuously and mindfully improve the peer mentoring model based on real-world experience and feedback. Program started with NCCU (started with 2015 proposal) and was extended to CSULA, our second PREM partner.

REU Baseline: Campus & facility tours; Safety training; Weekly seminars on research, science communication, elevator pitches, career pathways; Hike, Team-building picnic; Progress surveys; Franklin Institute trip; Ethics training; Arts Fest Kids Day training and participation with Upward Bound vertical mentoring; Poster and talk preparation; Campus-wide Symposium.

Evolution of Penn Pal Program

2016 Plan: Pre-selected peer mentors from undergrad (Millennium Scholars) and graduate (MRSEC) ranks are expected to attend an icebreaker, two group check-in meetings, and the Science Leadership Camp “Meet a Scientist” Mixer where they act as mentors for high school students. Conference calls, email, etc. to set up research experience ahead of summer. PREM T-shirts.

2016 Outcome:

• The “Meet a Scientist” Mixer worked well.

• PREM Masters students needed a more customized experience overall. 

• More graduate admissions information was desired. 

• A stronger PREM identity to the summer program was needed.

• Mentors and mentees needed a more clear articulation of the program’s expectations and goals.

2017 Plan: Only MRSEC grad students act as peer mentors. Add more mentor training and structured discussions with mentees designed to elicit career goals. Add meetings with graduate admissions officers. Masters student convey their own research goals to their faculty mentors before summer and are highlighted at REU events.

2017 Outcome:

• The higher expectations for PREM Masters students were well received. 

• Graduate admissions meetings (group & individual) were well received. 

• Mentors and mentees expressed much greater satisfaction with the program: it was an additional authentic layer of support beyond the lab.

2018 Plan: We felt we had now figured out the core elements of a successful peer mentoring program. Enhancements included the mentor and mentee jointly selecting one of four possible Industrial Speaker Seminars to attend, based on mentee career goals. 

Message to students, distinct from & beyond REU: You are the glue that brings the two universities together and are part of a larger year-round effort that is important to NSF. You are role models for other students at home and are expected to help spread awareness and encourage the next group of students. You have been selected to seriously explore pursuit of a PhD because the adviser who selected you believes that you are capable of it.

2018 Outcome:

• Satisfaction remains high. 

• Mentor and mentee felt they got to know each other better. 

• Industry connections were a good context for conversation. 

• Other program elements remain well-received.


2019 Plan: Meet PREM students via Skype prior to coming to Penn State to give an overview of program and if they had any questions. Selection of Penn Pal mentor selected more organically through a speed networking event. Streamline grad admissions meeting as a panel rather than individual department meetings. 

2019 Outcomes:

• Welcome and farewell dinners for Penn Pal mentees and mentors were well-recived. 

• More sustained guidance on preparing personal statements, requesting recommendations, seeking fellowships (based on experience with STEM Open House) that lead to more engagement with students over the academic year by reading their personal statements, when they were ready to apply to grad school.

• All events Penn Pals mentors were encouraged to attend to spark conversation with mentees and get to know them in a group environment. 

2020 Virtual PREM: Many of the PREM best practices were incorporated into our REU: Professional Development and Research Prep virtual program. We meet twice a month with PREM students (June and July). At the first meeting, we asked the students what they wanted. The students wanted more industry engagement and career panels, thus all PREM meetings focused around these topics in the virtual setting.